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When Did the Herdsman Know?
August 22, 2010
Everything in Sophocles' Oedipus the King leads up to or follows from Oedipus' horrible realization that he is the murderer of his father and husband of his mother. But before he recognizes the truth, two others precede him.

Jocasta is the first. As we described in an earlier essay, she figures out that Oedipus is her son when the messenger from Corinth tells Oedipus that he was given Oedipus as a baby by a shepherd from the house of Laius.

The herdsman is the second. Many years before, he saved Jocasta's baby from death. Later, he witnessed the murder of Laius. Now he learns that the baby he saved and the killer of Laius are one and the same. Let us look at how he connects the two.

Thirty odd years before the action of Oedipus the King begins, Jocasta gave the herdsman a baby, bound at the ankles, to be exposed on the slopes of Mt. Kithairon. The herdsman knew the baby was the son of Laius and Jocasta and that the oracle had prophesied that Laius' son would kill his father. The herdsman took pity on the child and gave him to a Corinthian shepherd from the other side of the mountain. The herdsman told Laius and Jocasta that he had carried out his charge, and his services secured him a place as a trusted insider in Laius' administration.

About eighteen years later, the herdsman was with Laius and three other men when Laius was accosted and killed at the place where three roads meet. The others were killed (or disappeared); only the herdsman made it back to Thebes.

No one was interested enough in the murder of Laius to launch an investigation. Presumably Jocasta was happy enough to be rid of her overbearing spouse, and no-one, including her brother Kreon, was willing to take charge of an inquiry. Everyone was absorbed with the curse of the Sphinx.

For some reason, the herdsman reported that the King's party was attacked by a band of robbers. Maybe he was ashamed to tell them that a single man had overpowered the king's guard; maybe he was trying to explain why he ran away. At any rate, his story became the official account of the incident.

At about the same time*, Oedipus appeared in Thebes fresh from his victory over the Sphinx. He was haled as a hero and rewarded with a marriage to Jocasta. When the herdsman saw Oedipus, he recognized him as the killer of Laius. He said nothing, but asked to return to the remote fields of Kithairon.

Twelve or fifteen years later, he received an urgent summons to return to Thebes to tell Oedipus what he knew about the slaying of Laius. Naturally he resisted as long as he could, but eventually the king sent a detachment of guards to bring him back.

When he is dragged in front of Oedipus, he finds the king in the company of the shepherd to whom he had given the baby. Although he has no reason yet to connect Oedipus with the baby, the presence of the shepherd is unsettling.

In response to Oedipus' questions, the herdsman admits his identity as a slave in the house of Laius, but he pretends not to remember the Corinthian.

"Sure you remember me," the shepherd says, "You gave me a baby boy to raise as my own."

"Why are you asking me these questions?" the herdsman asks.

"Because that baby has become King Oedipus, who is standing before you," the messenger replies.

Now the herdsman knows the whole truth - Oedipus is not only the murderer of Laius, but the husband of his mother as well. The herdsman's demeanor changes from wary resistance to pitying horror.

Oedipus, though, remains unaware of the awful truth. Unlike Jocasta or the herdsman, he does not know that the baby was the son of Laius and Jocasta. He insists that the herdsman tell him where he got the baby. The herdsman is in a bind. If he refuses to answer he will be tortured and killed; if he tells what he knows, he will deliver an unbearably horrible message to a murderous tyrant. He opts for the latter, finally revealing to Oedipus who he is and what he has done.

Thirty years ago he saved an innocent baby from death because he took pity on him. Now he is unable to save Oedipus though he pities him once again.

*The timing of the arrivals of the herdsman and Oedipus in Thebes is problematic. Jocasta's account of the days following Laius' death implies that Oedipus arrived before the herdsman. She tells Oedipus (line 759) that when the herdsman arrived in Thebes and saw that Oedipus was king, he begged her to let him go back to the mountains. However, Kreon's account suggests that the herdsman arrived before Oedipus. When Oedipus first asks if there were witnesses to the killing of Laius, Kreon and the elders tell him that the sole survivor reported that Laius was killed by a band of robbers. When Oedipus questions why no-one began an investigation, Kreon tells him that Thebes was under the spell of the Sphinx (130), which means that Oedipus had not yet arrived in Thebes.